Photo by Michelle Stocker, The Capital Times

UW System President Ray Cross is calling for a special legislative session seeking “immediate flexibility and regulatory relief” to address budget challenges brought on by COVID-19.

In a letter to Gov. Tony Evers and GOP legislative leaders, the departing System president highlighted recent “difficult and painful decisions” to stabilize the budget through implementing employee furloughs and layoffs, canceling vendor contracts and reducing system purchases.

“As we plan for the fall semester, our universities are determined to find creative solutions to safely deliver quality education to students on-campus and through alternative delivery models,” the letter read. “However, we face significant financial and operational challenges that are made much worse by the ever-changing nature of the pandemic.”

Regents are preparing to hire Cross’ successor, and the system’s presidential search committee yesterday named University of Alaska System President Jim Johnsen as its sole finalist for the job. Johnsen begins interviews with regents and shared governance members next week.

Cross outlines three requests for lawmakers:

*Access to credit markets outside of the state budget to assist campus cash flow and to act as a cushion for “any further fiscal challenges due to COVID-19.” Cross said his plan would make the debt fall on the system and “the state of Wisconsin would not be liable.”

*A one-time exemption from state law that would permit an earlier start to the 2020-21 school year in order to avoid a potential second wave from the virus late in the fall. Currently, state law says that most schools cannot start fall semesters before Sept. 1.

*Cutting “burdensome” system reporting requirement regulations to save costs and free staff resources ahead of the fall semester.

Spokesmen for Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, and Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, said the two would discuss the letter with their caucuses.

Fitzgerald in a statement added “the Senate has had concerns in the past about lack of financial oversight,” adding the system had pushed for Cross’ ideas even before the pandemic began.

Meanwhile, Gov. Tony Evers spokeswoman Britt Cudaback told the guv will work with state agencies on finding flexibilities, as well as “encourage the Legislature to get back to work.”

“Given the uncertainty due to COVID-19, we anticipate that a number of state agencies will be looking for flexibilities,” she said in a statement. “We will continue to work with UW System and other state agencies, and encourage the Legislature to get back to work.”

Cudaback also highlighted how the COVID-19 aid bill lawmakers passed in an April extraordinary session didn’t include Evers administration recommendations that would’ve aided state agencies in the pandemic.

Cross’ letter comes after the system previously revealed it faces a $100 million net budget shortfall through the summer months, even after factoring cuts and federal relief.

A UWS spokesman didn’t immediately say whether the net loss estimate includes Evers’ recent $40.8 million system reduction as part of a 5 percent cut in General Purpose Revenue spending over coronavirus financial concerns.

Regents are also weighing a blueprint by Cross outlining a plan to rapidly specialize campuses and cut duplicate programs, centralize many administrative functions and expand online education in order to maintain stability post-coronavirus.

See the letter here.

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